Today was Italian Labour Day, a big national holiday that presented the perfect opportunity to do a little out of town excursion: a drive around Mount Etna. So together with Jill, a co-student of mine from England, we rented a little two-door Lancia to go on a country driving tour. At 50 Euros the rental was not exactly inexpensive, but we figured it would be worth it to be able to explore the countryside around Taormina.
View westwards from Taormina towards Mount Etna on a gorgeous day
First we had to deal with fuelling the car: our rental car was essentially empty and we were supposed to only put about as much fuel into the car as we thought we would use up so we’d be able to bring the car back empty as well. The gas stations were officially closed on this holiday, and unlike in North America, there was no option to use a credit card for payment at the pump. The pump, however, did have a little slot where you could feed in bills and one of the local drivers patiently took his time to explain the system to me.
The “Gole di Alcantara” (Alcantara River Gorge)
With enough fuel to get us a couple of hundred kilometers we set off on our country excursion. At Giardini Naxos we turned inland towards our first destination: the “Gole di Alcantara”, the Gorge of the Alcantara River which is cut from black basaltic rock. The signs on the country road pointed towards the parking lot for the Alcantara Gorge, so we parked our vehicle and entered the complex. A simple 20 minute tour to see the river and the strange rock formations would cost 3 Euros, while longer tours and wading tours through the river are available also. We descended several sets of stairs to get down to the riverbed from where we got a good look at some of the interesting rock formations. Unless you wanted to walk through the river, there was no other place to go than back up through another set of stairs.
Interesting basaltic rock formations
Once at the top we found out that if we had taken this entrance we would have been able to view the gorge for free. We were a couple of hundred meters away from our parked car and by the roadside there was a little stand which actually was the tourist information booth for this inland area. Two ladies supplied us with a range of brochures and information about the villages surrounding Mount Etna, and I have to admit that the service was better and more knowledgeable than the tourist office in Taormina, which happens to be a much bigger tourist centre.
View over the countryside from Motta Camastra
We decided to explore a few of the gorgeous hilltop towns which are patched up against the rocky outcrops, providing an amazing vantage point of the surrounding countryside. Following a sign for a village called Motta Camastra we turned into a winding narrow road that was slowly taking us to the top of this crag. At the bottom of the town there was a public parking spot and we figured it was better to park our car there and walk up than to try to navigate the unimaginably narrow roads that were snaking through this little hilltop town.
The narrow streets of Motta Camastra
Just as we had parked our car a local resident in his fifties started shouting at us in Italian from his balcony and waving at us. It took us some time to realize that he was actually inviting us up into his abode for a beer. We graciously declined, and continued our walk. Jill commented that local Sicilians had been showing a marked amount of interest in her and attributed it to her noticeably pale English complexion. After about a 10 minute walk through tiny cobble-stoned walkways we reached the main square which featured a bar with about 20 older men sitting outside. Most of them were wearing caps similar to French berets and they were engaged in a very spirited discussion. Not a woman was to be seen.
What a view…
Our walk continued to the ancient church and from there we followed a walkway past narrow houses to a lookout point overlooking the entire mountain area. Sleepy cats were lounging lazily on the pavement, here and there women were watering flowers in front of their apartments. The vista towards Mount Etna, the Alcantara Valley and various mountaintop villages perched precariously against different rocky outcrops was breathtaking.
View of Mount Etna behind the clouds
After Motta Camastra we decided to explore another one of these hilltop towns and following a beautiful drive through a countryside full of vineyards we reached a place called Rocella Valdemone about 45 minutes later. We parked the car right next to the old town church and strolled across the piazza. At the other end of this public square we saw the obligatory bar which again featured about 15 to 20 older gentlemen fully engrossed in an animated discussion. My guess was they were probably discussing soccer. We got the definite impression that tourists don’t come here very often because we certainly stuck out like a sore thumb and the locals were looking at us a bit as if we were a novelty. Again, women were conspicuously absent, with the occasional exception who was sweeping the pavement in front of the house and then disappeared inside again.